Monday, April 9, 2012

Footnote (orig. Hearat Shulayim) [2011]

MPAA (PG)  Roger Ebert (4 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (4 Stars)

IMDb listing
Roger Ebert's review

Let me begin my review of Footnote (orig. Hearat Shulayim), an Israeli film presented largely in Hebrew with English subtitles written and directed by Joseph Cedar, by admitting that at first glance this film will appear to most people to be for a very limited audience.

After all, it's about Uriel (played by Shlomo Bar-Aba) and Eliezer Shkolnik (played by Lior Ashkenazi), father and son, who are both Talmudic (Scripture) scholars.  Yet as the movie progresses, the rather complicated father-son relationship increasingly dominates to the point that by the end of the film pretty much everybody who's reached middle age could relate to it.

Since this is film that I don't think a huge number of people are going to see, I am going to tell more of the story than I otherwise would.  So I'm giving movie purists here a SPOILER ALERT:  Please don't read further if you plan to see the movie and don't want to know more about it than what I've already described.

So how does the film play out?  From the beginning, the movie makes it clear that Eliezer, the son, has been far more successful in their shared field than his father.

Why would that be?  Well according to the story, Uriel, now in his 70s had devoted 30 years of his life to proving the hypothesis that there was a particular copy, since lost, of the Jerusalem Talmud passing through the Jewish communities of Medieval Europe, whose unique characteristics could be found surviving copies of the Talmud found throughout Europe and indeed in the Jewish world today.

How does one go about proving a thesis like this?  Well, very meticulously ;-).  Indeed, one uses the same text critical techniques developed by Biblical and other Ancient Text scholars over the past century and a half to arrive at critical editions of the Bible and other Ancient Texts based on the surviving sources available to us today.  Readers are to remember that prior to the 1500s there were no printing presses in Europe.  So texts were copied by hand and therefore subject to errors and embellishments entering into the texts as a result of the qualities of the individual scribes responsible for making the copies.  Since many Ancient Texts were venerated by their audiences as sacred, there were certainly attempts at quality control.  However, mistakes and embellishments entered into texts with each generation of copying.   Text scholars would analyze the surviving copies of ancient texts, searching to construct a "geneology" or "family tree" of the text seeking eventually to arrive at a postulated "original text" (generally to be lost).

This then was what Uriel had dedicated himself to -- meticulously analyzing surviving Medieval European texts of the Jerusalem Talmud in search of arriving at an original version (since lost) of the text on which those surviving texts were based.  According to the story Uriel had spent 30 years on this project.

Well, just as he was going to publish the results of his 30 years of work, an academic rival published the text of a manuscript that (according to the story) "just happened to be found hidden in the inside sleeve of a Medieval text in some monastery somewhere in Italy."  The text turned out to be the long lost text of the Jerusalem Talmud that Uriel had spent those 30 years trying to arrive at through text analysis.

In other words with the discovery of the actual text (according to the story) Uriel's 30 years of work proved to be a complete waste of time.  (I've since talked to one of my (Servite) Religious Order's historians about this story and we both agreed that Uriel should have been able to salvage a good deal of his life's work anyway -- if only to prove that the newly found text was the text that he had spent 30 years arriving at through text analysis -- but then this is a movie and for the sake of story, we're simply asked to accept that a good part of Uriel's life's work proved to be a waste of time).

So Uriel became bitter and getting-on in years, he decided to just keep submitting his life's work (according to the movie for 18 years in a row) to the Israeli Ministry of Culture for recognition, perhaps even to just annoy the people there.  And, of course, since his life's work proved largely superseded by the discovery of the actual text, he's always passed-over.

In the meantime, his son, following in his father's footsteps but not burdened by those 30 years of largely wasted work became enormously successful in exploring entirely new avenues for Talmudic Scripture study.

Well, one afternoon, as Uriel is walking as he did every day to the National Library in Jerusalem to continue on in his largely irrelevant, superseded work, receives a phone call from said Israeli Ministry of Culture.  The call from a secretary from the ministry informs him that, yes, this year, the Ministry of Culture was going to award him the Israel Award for his life's work in Talmudic Study!

Needless to say, Uriel is happy as can be: Finally, after decades of being considered a relic and ever increasingly a laughingstock in the Talmudic study community in Jerusalem, he's going to get recognized.  So he tells everybody -- his friends, an aging and ever diminishing cadre of colleagues, his family including, of course his son -- that he's finally won an award for his work.

Yet ... ;-), a few days later, his son Eliezer on the road heading out of Jerusalem to Tel Aviv / Haifa to give yet another talk that he is scheduled to give somewhere, receives a frantic call on his cell phone to come quickly to the Ministry of Culture because "there is a problem."  He tells them that he can't come immediately because he has a rather full schedule for the day.  But the caller is insistent, telling him that "it's important."  Finally Eliezer acceeds, telling the caller that he'll return back to Jerusalem following his luncheon talk that he's supposed to give somewhere.  This seems to relieve the caller.

When Eliezer arrives at the Ministry of Culture that afternoon, he is escorted to the meeting already in progress being held in what appears to be some sort of a utility closet -- a mop keeps falling on the head of the commission who had called the meeting ;-).  It's clear that there's a problem and that the committee is so embarrassed about the problem that it's actually meeting in a closet.

What's the problem?  Well, the reader here can guess -- Uriel (the father) wasn't supposed to get the award.  Instead, Eliezer (the far more successful son) was.  The head of the commission explained with some embarrassment that the two's last name is (obviously) the same and that even their first names begin in a similar way (remember that written Hebrew doesn't normally make use of vowels ... ;-).  Hence, his secretary made the terrible mistake of calling "the wrong Dr. Shkolnik." ;-)

What now?  Well, Eliezer tells the committee that taking away this award from his father now would crush his father.  Yet, the head of the nominating committee, Dr. Grossman (played by Micah Lowensohn), who may have even been Uriel's academic rival who found/published that long lost yet recently discovered copy of the Jerusalem Talmud, is insistent that Eliezer rather than Uriel get the award.  Afterall, he tells Eliezer that he voted (and the rest of the committee) had voted for Eliezer and NOT for his father.  What's Eliezer supposed to do?  He asks to think about it.

After the meeting, Eliezer goes over to the National Library to the book stacks where his father is almost always to be found, and he finds Uriel there sharing a bottle of wine with his 3-4 loyal bookwormy friends, saying "Mazal Tov" ... ;-).  How can he take this away from his dad?

So the next day he meets with Dr. Grossman in Grossman's office and tells him that he just can't take the award from his father.  "Very well," says Grossman, "but I have two conditions."  They are (1) that Eliezer himself write the formal letter explaining why Uriel deserves the award.  Grossman tells him that he'll "sign any letter that Eliezer writes" in this regard but he insists that Eliezer himself write the letter, and (2) that Eliezer, forever, withdraw his name from consideration for winning this award again.  "I voted for you.  The committee voted for you.  You've chosen to give the award to your father instead.  So you do not deserve to be considered for this award ever again."  Understanding what Dr. Grossman was saying, Eliezer with slumped head and shoulders, agrees.

Eliezer returns to his office and begins to type the award letter.  And he begins to see that it's more difficult to write than he had imagined.  Since the bulk of his father's life's work proved to be unnecessary, his previous claim to fame was simply a footnote in another scholar's work and in that footnote simply the other scholar had simply thanked Uriel for "a number of (unpublished!) conversations" that the two had shared about the author's subject at hand.  What to do?  Well, Eliezer was a renowned scholar and speaker.  So he "spruces-up" the letter of award to sound half-way respectable.  Yet it is clear to him (and to the audience watching the film) that the letter is "heavy on the b..."  But what can he do?  He finishes the letter and takes it over to Grossman to sign it.  Grossman's office then puts it on Ministry of Culture stationary and mails to Uriel.

In the meantime, a young / enthusiastic journalist named Noa (played by Yuval Scharf) from the Haretz comes over to Uriel to interview him about the award.  And as she interviews him, she can't resist asking him: "How has it been to have, until now, been so overshadowed by your son?  It must have been difficult, right?"

Well, Uriel (remember he's in his 70s, and has been carrying a huge chip on his shoulder for a very long time), let's go: "You know, WE OF MY GENERATION were the real scholars.  We meticulously cataloged and studied everything that we found in our field.  TODAY, a young scholar comes to an archeological site and finds two pottery sherds next to each other, they could be of different pots, different cultures, even from different epochs, and he just takes them and pastes them together.  We would have meticulously analyzed the whole site, we would have cataloged every [crumb] that we found.  But today, all the younger scholars want is a pot pasted together to make for a nice photograph."  And the implication was that Uriel felt that his son was emblematic that kind of a lazy new generation scholar.

Well the bright, young journalist leaves that interview just smiling from ear to ear ;-).  And the next day, there's the interview printed in the Haretz with the older (and finally recognized) Uriel Shkolnik essentially calling his son (and his generation of scholars) a fraud and a lazy one at that ;-).  Needless to say, mom (Uriel's wife) and, of course, Eliezer are upset.  Yet, if Uriel (remember, he's in his 70s) is somewhat embarrassed, he's also feeling vindicated at last having been finally given the opportunity to "tell it how it is..." and put those "young whipper-snappers" in their place ;-)

The letter from the Ministry of Culture arrives a day or two later.  Uriel reads it, reads it again, gets a frame for it, and puts it on his wall at home.  He's smiling from ear to ear even if his wife and son are now very irritated with him.  Yet as he looks at it a third or fourth time, as it's hanging on the wall there ... he notices something. After all, he's a text scholar.  He goes to a book shelf, picks up one of his son's books, flips through the pages and finds a rather obscure term that his son used in that book that also appears in the letter from the Ministry of Culture.  He notices another phrase.  He goes back to his files, files that contain copies of a fair amount of his son's work as well, and notices that his son had used the exact same phrase in three or four articles that he had published.  He starts to realize that  HIS OWN SON had written the award letter that was now hanging on his wall.

What to do?  The movie ends just as Uriel is about to receive his award at a formal awards ceremony.  What was he going to say in his acceptance remarks after receiving the award?  We're left to guess ;-)

What a great movie!

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